SeaWorld Attendance Still Falling
Attendance at SeaWorld parks has fallen yet again, dropping 4 percent during the first half of this year. On August 8th, shares in the company sank to another low, $12.28.
On a conference call to investment analysts, CEO Joel Manby explained the slumping attendance in San Diego as being due to what he called “public perception issues” driven largely by audience response to the movie Blackfish.
Two years ago, in response to those “public perception issues,” SeaWorld decided to stop breeding orcas, to begin replacing its Shamu theatrical shows with a new and more educational “Orca Encounter” productions, and to mount a major advertising campaign that it hoped would turn around the negative image.
But that hasn’t happened, and Manby explained on his conference call that the company had cut back on its advertising campaign too soon and is still being plagued by people’s negative view of keeping whales in concrete tanks.
“In a brand turnaround, we’ll continue to have to maintain a strong message about perception issues there that aren’t true that we need to continue to fight, and that’s what we had hoped to back off and we can’t now,” he said.
The numbers speak for themselves. For the second quarter, ending June 30, SeaWorld recorded a net loss of nearly $176 million. Total visitation for the first six months was 8.9 million, down from nearly 9.3 million in the same period last year. And Moody’s Investors Service has changed the company’s outlook from stable to negative.
In San Diego, the new “Orca Encounter” opened at the end of May, billed as the “world’s first live documentary,” an edutainment show surrounded by a Pacific Northwest-themed set featuring faux trees and man-made waterfalls.
But the L.A. Times called the show “boring, joyless and bogged down by scientific artifice.” Audiences seemed to agree: attendance is still down overall.
Two new attractions have been doing well, however: Ocean Explorer, which includes a three-minute mini-submarine ride; and Orca 360, a stereoscopic video created for virtual reality.
Orca 360 allows up to 10 people at a time to enter the “Simlab”, a futuristic-looking laboratory with large, eggshell-shaped chairs that swivel and recline, and where visitors don virtual reality goggles and a headset to be immersed in a 7½ -minute movie about orcas.
SeaWorld is also experimenting with VR at its Orlando park, where it has transformed its Kraken roller coaster into a virtual reality experience.
With more and more people coming to understand that whales and dolphins cannot thrive in concrete tanks, the days of keeping them on display are clearly numbered. And SeaWorld appears to be seeing its long-term survival as depending on technology rather than captivity.